.How Thundercat Made it Big With A-list Collaborators

The world is waking up to the genius that is Thundercat. Fans of prog-rock, funk, R&B and smooth pop have always had overlapping tastes, but few modern musicians have blurred these lines quite as well as he has.

So he isn’t new to collaborating with high-level artists, but it was a shock for everyone—including him—when he got to work with yacht-rock legends Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald, the hitmakers behind “What a Fool Believes” and “Danger Zone.” He somehow managed to rope them into contributing vocals to “Show You the Way” on his excellent third album Drunk, released in 2017.

This collaboration sprang up after a radio interview in which Thundercat was asked who he would take if he was stuck at sea, and he said Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald. Loggins heard the comment—his son had turned him onto Thundercat—but thought it was a joke. After all, who doesn’t treat ’70s soft rock as a joke?

But for Thundercat, it was a very earnest moment, and his collaboration with them, “Show You the Way,” ended up being one of the best tracks on an already brilliant cosmic, adult-contemporary-infused R&B record.

In fact, many of the best moments in Thundercat’s career have come out of the work he’s done with and for other artists. Here are five of them.

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Mac Miller’s NPR ‘Tiny Desk’ session

A month before Mac Miller passed away from a drug overdose at the age of 26, he left us with one of his best, most emotive performances via NPR’s Tiny Desk series. His backing band is phenomenal, with low-key, jazzy-funk grooves, but it’s Thundercat—who plays bass and sings on the song “What’s the Use?”—who really stands out. He offsets Miller’s melancholy with some funky bass lines. Just listen to those dreamy fills and deep, punchy grooves.

Kendrick Lamar’s “These Walls” 

For many people, the first time Thundercat popped up on their radar was with Kendrick Lamar’s landmark hip-hop album To Pimp a Butterfly. Thundercat took home a Grammy in 2016 for his work on the sexy, surreal track “These Walls.” But he deserves credit for much of the album’s vibe as a whole. He had a huge hand in shaping its sound, by giving Lamar a seminar-level education in jazz as he worked, guiding the artist toward sonic brilliance.

Flying Lotus’ ‘You’re Dead’ 

If it was Kendrick that launched Thundercat into the mainstream, it was Flying Lotus that made him the cult musician everyone wanted to work with. Flying Lotus released all of Thundercat’s solo records on his Brainfeeder label. He also invited Thundercat to play bass on his Cosmogramma album in 2010. Thundercat plays a major role on Flying Lotus’ 2014 album You’re Dead as bassist and guest vocalist. It’s a whirlwind of tripped-out electro-jazz, and Thundercat enhances it significantly.

Erykah Badu’s ‘New Amerykah Pt. 1’

As Badu reached for a more hip-hop sound in 2008 with New Amerykah Pt. 1, she enlisted Thundercat to play bass. He killed it with some of his funkiest, yet simplest, bass lines. She mentored him on how to be an artist, not just a sideman in a band. After this record, Thundercat embraced a much more experimental approach to music. His grooves on this record are about as solid as they come.

Eric Andre’s “Tron Song” video 

Along with a lot of amazing music, Thundercat also has a weird sense of humor. For his own “Tron Song,” he got comedian Eric Andre of Tim and Eric, Awesome Show, Great Job! to direct the video for the $5K Video Series (where comedians make a video for an artist using a $5,000 budget). This video is Tim-and-Eric humor at its most disgusting. A tribute to Thundercat’s cat, the video—which appears to be shot on an old VHS tape—includes Thundercat blowing his brains out, performing autoerotic asphyxiation in a litter box and getting into a bloody fight with Andre. It’s a really odd juxtaposition to the easy-breezy groove of “Tron Song,”

Thundercat performs Friday, Dec. 21 at 9 p.m. at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $25/adv, $28/door. 423-1338.


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